Review: “The Dark Knight Rises”

It’s hard to deny that an insidiousness permeates Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, and not just because of the real life unpleasantness that has transpired offscreen. “The Dark Knight Rises” is almost unbearably grim, a tangle of frayed nerves and cultural angst. The fiery and destructive imagery of the ad campaign symbolizes Batman’s rebirth, but could just as easily represent the oppressively dour feeling imparted by the series’ latest adventure. Batman does rise, but in order to do so, the audience is plunged with him into horribly low depths.

“The Dark Knight Rises” is a synthesis of two famed Batman stories from the comics, with considerable material drawn from Nolan’s own “Batman Begins.” It begins eight years after “The Dark Knight,” with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) holed up in Wayne Manor, still reeling from the physical and mental tolls of being Batman. Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, gas-inhaling, masked terrorist hell-bent on ruining Batman and Gotham City for reasons unknown. Bane’s plan combines Marxist rhetoric with anarchist tactics as he swiftly invades the city, neutralizes the police force, and announces to all that he intends to destroy Gotham with a nuclear device in short time.

Make of the film’s politics what you will, Nolan’s infusion of obvious real world parallels into the series cleverly adds a resonance and an electric jolt of anxiety not normally associated with summer blockbusters. With a setting removed from the comparatively carefree world of most comic films, this work’s bleakness, manifested in relentless violence, has a boldness to it, a willingness to use this intellectual property for purposes more interesting than escapist entertainment. This harnessing of the zeitgeist comes at a high cost, as it proves exhausting to process both utter despair and comic book action. As the body count climbs, it comes close to being overwhelming.

Comic book films are generally as much about their villains as they are the heroes. “The Dark Knight” saw Heath Ledger’s Joker become instantly iconic – a predatory, demonic clown whose obsession with mocking the idea of human decency made him the most compelling foe a cinematic superhero ever faced. With Bane, “The Dark Knight Rises” has a frightening and intimidating foe, albeit one markedly less enthralling to watch than his predecessor. Once Bane rules Gotham’s streets, the tone takes a severe turn for what many critics have accurately described as apocalyptic. The villains round up privileged citizens and execute them in droves, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looms for the millions of potential victims.

Nolan repeatedly brushes off addressing the logistical and practical details that would make Bane’s antics possible, undercutting the sort of praise the series has often received for its supposedly more realistic universe. Nolan, working with brother Jonathan on the script, has made a film whose story is shockingly replete with logical faults and nonsensical developments.

One such example: Why does Bane want to conquer Gotham if he just intends to blow it up shortly afterwards? Don’t ask me, and don’t ask Bane, because he doesn’t have much of an explanation. Similar logical deficiencies plagued “Batman Begins,” from which Nolan practices the time-honored art of liberally borrowing from his own work, making this his filmography’s “Return of the Jedi.” At least “Return of the Jedi” closed out the series decisively, whereas here Nolan waffles with a coda that leaves room for an eventual return should his kitchen need remodeling a few years from now.

Nolan has long struggled to direct visually appealing action sequences, though some spectacular moments in “The Dark Knight” suggested major improvement. Here, he regresses, with nothing as exciting to watch as any of the action scenes in his last two films. In some cases, Batman’s battles barely qualify as competently rendered. For a film that treats several fistfights as profound developments, the staging often feels sluggish and uninspired, with Batman and his foes trading simple punches more along the lines of amateur pugilists than top-tier warriors. Nolan’s lengthy shots of Batman and Bane trading blows rarely suggest the sort of brutal injuries their blows should be inflicting, lending an anti-climatic feel to exchanges that should constitute visceral highlights.

Fortunately, the other elements of the film are nowhere near as mishandled as its unbelievable plot and often disappointing action. Its myriad failings are well-concealed by Nolan’s marvelously brisk pacing, which aptly weaves together the substantive stories of the dozen or so major characters. The number of players frequently threatens to overwhelm the narrative, but Nolan keeps it under control, unafraid to leave Bruce Wayne’s side long enough to expand upon the rest of the film’s universe.

The huge cast, which includes Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, and Gary Oldman, all ensure that things stay interesting when away from hero and villain. Nolan proves that he is a much better writer than one might assume from the plotting when dealing with the character development, which adequately explores even newcomers like Hathaway’s Catwoman and Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic detective

Despite its litany of shortcomings, “The Dark Knight Rises” proves to be one of those deeply flawed films that ultimately work well enough. Its characters are interesting, the performances are uniformly excellent, the themes merit discussion, and Nolan’s overarching vision remains provocative. Where the last film utilized recognizable motifs to imbue the story with chillingly effective thematic resonance, the new installment heightens the tension tenfold, becoming more a nightmare than a reflection of something real. This is an adequate end to the series as a whole. However, as a sequel to “The Dark Knight,” it fails to rise to the occasion.